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From Polis to Madina: Urban Change in Late Antique and Early Islamic Syria 

Hugh Kennedy 

Past and Present, No. 106. (Feb., 1985), pp. 3-27. 

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The civilization of classical antiquity was essentially urban, in the 
sense that the government was carried on from the cities, the upper 
classes lived in them and, after the fourth century, the ecclesiastical 
hierarchy was based in them too. The political and social importance 
of cities was reflected in the care which was lavished on their design. 

* This paper was first presented at the Spring Symposium at the Centre for Byzantine 
Studies, University of Birmingham, and I am most grateful to Professor A. A. M. 
Bryer for the opportunity to give it. I would also like to record my gratitude to Dr. 
Adnan al-Bakhit of the University of Jordan for enabling me to attend the 1983 
conference on the history of Bilad al-Sham. I am also pleased to acknowledge assistance 
from the Small Humanities Research Fund of the British Academy for a grant enabling 
me to travel to Syria in 1982. In addition to the printed sources cited in the notes, I have 
benefited greatly from discussions with Dr. F. Ziyadine of the Jordanian Department of 
Antiquities, Dr. M. Gawlikowski of the Polish Archaeological Mission to Jerash and 
Dr. G. Tate of the Institut Francais d'Archeologie de Beyrouth. I am especially grateful 
to Dr. J. Bowsher of the British Archaeological Mission to Jerash for showing me 
recent work on the site and to Dr. P. Magdalino of the University of St. Andrews for 
introducing me to the world of Byzantine hagiography. 

The literature on the towns of late antiquity in the Near East is vast and cannot be 
summarized here. For a general discussion of change and continuity during this 
period, see A. Kazhdan and A. Cutler, "Continuity and Discontinuity in Byzantine 
History", Byzantion, lii (1982), pp. 429-78. For Byzantine architecture in general, 
C. Mango, Byzantine Architecture (New York, 1979). On towns, D. Claude, Die 
byzantinische Stadt im 6. Jahrhundert (Munich, 1969); C. Foss, "The Persians in Asia 
Minor and the End of Antiquity", Eng. Hist. Rev., xc (1975), pp. 721-47; C. Foss, 
Byzantine and Turkish Sardis (Cambridge, Mass., 1976); C. Foss, Ephesus after 
Antiquity (Cambridge, 1979). On late antique Antioch, G. Downey, Antioch in Syria 
(Princeton, 1961); W. Liebeschuetz, Antioch (Oxford, 1972). For the fate of baths and 
theatres in Constantinople, C. Mango, "Daily Life in Byzantium", Jahrbuch fur 
osterreichischen Byzantinistik (1981), pp. 337-53. For post-classical Byzantine towns, 
C. Bouras, "City and Village: Urban Design and Architecture", Jahrbuch fur 
osterreichischen Byzantinistik (1981), pp. 611-53. 

Discussion of the early Islamic city is less full and it is important to guard against 
using later evidence about the "traditional" Muslim city uncritically for the early 
period. A good introduction with full bibliography is E. Wirth, "Die orientalische 
Stadt", Saeculum, xxvi (1975), pp. 43-94. The best general account of the architecture 
remains K. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1932-40), 
while important new evidence from written sources is provided in S. D. Goitein, A 
Mediterranean Society, 4 vols. (Berkeley, 1967-83), iv, pp. 1-105. The best discussions 
of individual towns are J. Sauvaget, "Le plan de Laodicee-sur-Mer", Bulletin d' etudes 
orientales, iv (1934), pp. 81-116; J. Sauvaget, Alep (Paris, 1941); J. Sauvaget, "Le plan 
antique de Damas", Syria, xxvi (1949), pp. 314-58. 


From the classical Greek period onwards, standards of town design 
were developed which have been an inspiration to urban planners 
ever since. 1 The key features of this urban vision were the orderly 
planning of broad, paved streets, often edged with stately colonnades 
(stoas) and porticoes, the rectangular open spaces of the forums and 
agoras, and the monumental public buildings, the theatres, the baths, 
the basilicas and, later, the churches. With the political difficulties 
of the western empire from the third century onwards, the cities of 
the western part of the Roman world, apart from some areas of Italy, 
began to lose their classical aspect. Some seem to have become entirely 
deserted, many more retreated into a narrow fortified area where the 
inhabitants could provide defence which the state was no longer able 
to do. This change in design was reflected in the loss of social and 
political status; power and wealth shifted first to the rural estate and 
villa, then to the monastery, the manor and the castle. Political chaos 
and economic decline effectively destroyed the classical cities of 
western Europe. 

In the eastern half of the empire the fate of cities was in striking 
contrast to that in the west. Here the tradition of urban life continued 
uninterrupted and the very centuries, fourth and fifth, which saw the 
decline of the urban economies of the west saw something of a boom 
in the east, especially in Syria, where the archaeological remains 
clearly point to expanding urban settlement in some areas. Nor did 
the coming of Islam from 632 onwards break this continuity. Certain 
cities declined, others became more important, but the traditions of 
urban life maintained themselves, it was still in the towns that the 
upper classes lived and it was from the towns that they exercised 
political power. 2 Paradoxically, however, this continuity of social and 
political function did not result in a continuity of architectural design 
and urban planning, even in cities like Damascus, Jerusalem and 
Aleppo where urban life and economic activity continued on the same 
sites. The broad, colonnaded streets were invaded and divided up by 
instrusive structures, both houses and shops, and became more like 

1 On classical town planning, J. B. Ward-Perkins, Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy 
(New York, 1974); A. N. Barghouti, "Urbanization of Palestine and Jordan in 
Hellenistic and Roman Times", in A. Hadidi (ed.), Studies in the History and Archae- 
ology of Jordan (Amman, 1982). 

2 For the Islamic cities of Syria, in addition to the works of Sauvaget cited above, 
N. Elisseeff, "Damas a la lumiere des theories de Jean Sauvaget", in A. Hourani and 
S. M. Stern (eds.), The Islamic City (Oxford, 1970), pp. 157-77; N. Elisseeff, "Hims" 
and "al-Ladhikiyya", and O. Grabar, "al-Kuds", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edn. 
(Leiden, 1954- ). 


narrow winding lanes than the majestic thoroughfares of classical 
antiquity; and the extensive, open agora, scene for markets and 
meetings, was gone. The other main features of the ancient city, the 
monumental buildings, disappeared almost entirely, to be replaced 
by the mosque and the small urban hammam or bath-house. Despite 
the continuity of urban life, the built environment went through a 
profound and lasting transformation. 

The purpose of this article is to examine two interrelated aspects 
of this process. The first is the examination of the chronology of the 
changes, in particular to discover how far they antedated the Muslim 
conquest of the 630s and how far they occurred after that time. The 
second is to suggest some of the possible reasons for these changes. 
The most important issue here is how far the changes can be ascribed 
to the replacement of Christianity by Islam as the religion of the 
dominant social groups or, in other words, is the traditional Middle 
Eastern city, the madina, the result of the Islamization of society? 
Can we in fact call it the "Islamic city" or is it rather the product of 
longer-term social and economic changes of which the coming of the 
new religion was only one aspect? 

These processes will be investigated in one area of the Byzantine 
empire, the provinces at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. In the 
sixth century these were known as Syria I and II, Phoenicia I and II, 
Palestine I, II and III and Arabia, but for simplicity the whole area 
will be referred to as Syria. It is an area for which the sources, literary 
and archaeological, are full enough to give us some idea of the nature 
of the changes, although some material from outside, notably from 
the great Asia Minor cities of Ephesus and Sardis will be included. 
It is also an area where, in contrast to Asia Minor, urban continuity 
was marked throughout the early middle ages, providing evidence of 
long-term trends. 

In the mid-sixth century the classical vision of the city and of urban 
order was still very much alive. In the Buildings Procopius describes 
the reconstruction of Antioch by Justinian in the years after the 
Persian conquest of 540: "he laid it out with stoas and agoras, dividing 
all the blocks of houses by means of streets and making water- 
channels, fountains and sewers, all of which the city now boasts. He 
built theatres and baths for it, ornamenting it with all the other 
buildings by which the prosperity of a city is wont be shown". 3 

We should not take Procopius' description as an entirely accurate 

3 Procopius, Buildings^ ed. and trans. H. Dewing (London, 1940), pp. 170-1. 


picture of the Syrian city of the second half of the sixth century. In 
many ways the rebuilding of Antioch was something of a rearguard 
action and may not have been as successful as the author would have 
us believe. We know from archaeological evidence that the main 
colonnaded street was rebuilt, if on a smaller scale, but excavations 
have not shown that the theatres and baths were effectively restored. 4 
Not surprisingly, in view of the circumstances, city walls were given 
priority and it is debatable how far urban life of the traditional pattern 
ever returned to the city. In other areas of Syria, even by Procopius' 
account, Justinian seems to have made little attempt to maintain the 
amenities of polis life. At the distant frontier fortress of Circesium on 
the Euphrates he is said to have rebuilt the baths, while at the 
pilgrimage town of Sergiopolis (Rusafa) he built stoas and houses as 
well as walls. Elsewhere his works were confined to religious building 
and fortifications, and even in cities like Cyrrhus and Palmyra, which 
he is said to have restored after they fell into ruin, the work did not 
consist of more than building defences and, in the case of Cyrrhus 
an improved water supply in case the city was besieged. 5 There is no 
evidence that Justinian's reign saw a general revival of classical urban 
life in Syria. 

If new constructions were very rare, it is difficult to tell how far 
existing classical public buildings were maintained and used during 
the sixth century. 6 The fate of classical theatres illustrates the nature 
of the problem. All classical cities of any consequence in Syria had 
at least one theatre, 7 and many like Philadelphia (Amman) and Gerasa 
( Jerash) had two, the smaller of which may have been used for council 
meetings. 8 The last theatre known to have been constructed in Syria 
was the one built by the emperor Philip the Arab in the mid-third 
century to adorn his birthplace at Philippopolis in the Hawran, and 

4 R. Stillwell, Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Princeton, 1934-52); J. Lassus (ed.), Les 
portiques d'Antioche (Princeton, 1977). 

5 Procopius, Buildings, pp. 156-9, 174-7. 

6 Continuity through the sixth century has been accepted by C. Foss and, to a lesser 
extent, by D. Claude, but there is little positive evidence and our knowledge of urban 
life in the second half of the sixth century is very scanty. Downey suggests a sharp 
decline in urban activity at Antioch after 540 {Antioch in Syria, pp. 557-9), and on this 
see H. Kennedy, "The Arab Conquest of Syria and Arabia", in J. Koumoulides and 
J. Haldon (eds.), Byzantine Perspectives (forthcoming), where it is argued that the 
second half of the sixth century sees fundamental changes in the economy and society 
of Byzantine Syria. 

7 For the theatres of Syria, see E. Frezouls, "Recherches sur les theatres de l'orient 
syrien", Syria, xxxvi (1959), pp. 202-8, and xxxviii (1961), pp. 54-86. 

8 Ibid., pp. 85-6. 


by Justinian's reign it was already three hundred years old. Despite 
Procopius' claims, there is no archaeological evidence for large-scale 
restorations of theatres in sixth-century Syria. We know that some 
were abandoned. The one at Pella of the Decapolis was invaded by 
small-scale structures during the Byzantine period, 9 while at Caesarea 
in Palestine the theatre was incorporated into a new system of de- 
fences, probably late in the Byzantine period. 10 Some literary evi- 
dence points in the same direction. In 502 the emperor Anastasius 
abolished the spring celebrations in the theatre at Edessa, probably 
in response to the opinion of local ecclesiastics like Jacob of Sarug, 
who denounced the performances as "dancing, sport and music, the 
miming of lying tales, teaching which destroys the mind, poems 
which are not true, troublesome and confused sounds, melodies to 
attract children, ordered and captivating songs, skilful chants, lying 
canticles composed according to the folly invented by the Greeks". 11 
In the face of public opinion of this sort, it is unlikely that the theatre 
at Edessa survived the abolition of the spring festival. The life of St. 
Simeon Stylites the Younger, who lived near Antioch in the late sixth 
century, tells us a good deal about various aspects of city life, but 
there is no mention of the theatre or theatrical performances. 12 
However, there were exceptions to this general picture. In the life of 
St. Simeon the Fool by Leontios of Neapolis we are given a vivid 
impression of urban life in Emesa (Hims) at the end of the sixth 
century. 13 It shows continued urban vitality in many spheres — 
markets, baths, prostitution, taverns and the theatre. Not only does 
the theatre continue to be used for perfomances, clearly of a sort no 
Christian moralist could approve of, but there were still active theatre 
factions, although their function and importance is not clear from the 
text. 14 The Persian invasions of the early seventh century probably 
put an end to any surviving performances in the theatres. Their taste 
was probably more for equine sports, as is suggested by the polo goal 
posts discovered in the hippodrome at Gerasa. The tradition of horse- 

9 R. H. Smith, A. McNicoll and J. B. Hennessy, "The 1980 Season at Pella of the 
Decapolis", Bull. Amer. Schools of Oriental Research, ccxliv (1981), pp. 17-21. 

10 R. C. Wiemken and K. G. Holum, "The Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima, 
8th Season, 1979", Bull. Amer. Schools of Oriental Research, ccxliv (1981), p. 29; 
W. E. Kaegi, "Some Seventh-Century Sources on Caesarea", Israel Exploration J 7. , 
xxviii (1978), pp. 177-81. 

11 Quoted in J. B. Segal, Edessa, the Blessed City (Oxford, 1979), pp. 163-5. 

12 La vie ancienne de s. Symeon Stylite lejeune, 521-592, ed. P. van den Ven, 2 vols. 
(Subsidia hagiographia, xxxii, Brussels, 1962-70). 

13 La vie de Symeon le fou, ed. A. J. Festugiere (Paris, 1974). 

14 Ibid., caps, xvi, xxii, xxxv. 


racing continued into Islamic times and some early Islamic cities had 
race tracks, but there is no evidence that other sorts of public 
performance survived the end of antiquity. 15 After the Muslim con- 
quest, theatres were abandoned, demolished (the fate, presumably, 
of the one St. Simeon the Fool performed in at Emesa since there is 
no trace of it today), converted into fortresses (Bostra) or adapted for 
industrial use (Gerasa, where an interesting series of Umayyad pottery 
kilns has recently been discovered in the North Theatre). 16 The 
Islamic conquest certainly meant the end of the classical theatre but 
the evidence suggests that the decline had set in well before. 17 

The baths were another important amenity of the classical city, as 
Procopius makes plain. The history of public baths has not perhaps 
received the attention due to it, since these structures were an essential 
part of the urban society of both classical antiquity and the Muslim 
world. It has recently been suggested that the ancient tradition of 
public bathing almost died out in Constantinople in the seventh and 
eighth centuries. 18 In the Middle East, however, the tradition of 
public baths seems to have lasted without interruption from antiquity 
to the present day. If you could not get a bath in the imperial city, 
you could certainly get one in Emesa (Hims) in the late sixth century, 
where the life of St. Simeon the Fool speaks of baths for both men 
and women (the saint, of course, choosing to enter the women's one). 
The public baths of Hims survived the Muslim conquest; in 724 St. 
Willibald and his fellow Christians were able to take advantage of 
one. 19 

15 C. H. Kraeling, Gerasa, City of the Decapolis (New Haven, 1938), pp. 86, 97. 
For horse-racing in the early Islamic period, see the literary references in M. M. 
Ahsan, Social Life under Abbasids (London, 1979), pp. 243-9. 

16 I am grateful to Dr. J. Bowsher of the British Archaeological Mission to Jerash 
for pointing these out to me. 

17 Further evidence from other parts of the Byzantine empire is given by Claude, 
Byzantinische Stadt in 6. Jahrhundert, pp. 74-6. 

18 Mango, "Daily Life in Byzantium", pp. 338-41. The literary evidence for baths 
in the Byzantine period has been collected by A. Lumpe, "Zur Kulturgeschichte des 
Bades in der byzantinischen Ara", Byzantinische Forschungen, vi (1979), pp. 151-66. 
Lumpe has found virtually no textual evidence for public baths after the end of the 
seventh century. 

19 Vie de Symeon le fou, ed. Festugiere, cap. xiv; J. Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims 
before the Crusades (Warminster, 1977). For baths in the Muslim world, see J. Sourdel- 
Thomime, "Hammam", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edn.; H. Grotzfeld, Das Bad 
im arabisch-islamischen Mittelalter: eine kulturgeschtliche Studie (Wiesbaden, 1970); 
Ahsan, Social Life under Abbasids, pp. 196-201 , which suffers from the attempt to give 
classical names to the chambers of a Muslim bath. For the contemporary organization 
of baths, R. B. Serjeant and R. Lewcock, Sana': An Arabian Islamic City (London, 
1983), pp. 501-25. 


While the practice of bathing continued, the design and scale of 
bath-houses changed very considerably. The great baths of the early 
imperial period had been at the centre of leisure complexes which 
included gymnasia and sometimes libraries. The gymnasia had disap- 
peared by the end of the fourth century, but in some places, like 
Ephesus for example, the great bath-houses were still in use and were 
restored during the fourth and fifth centuries. An inscription from 
Antioch tells of the restoration of baths by the comes orientis Flavius 
in 537-8, just before the catastrophe which obliged Justinian to 
rebuild the city. 20 It is not clear that any of the old style bath-houses 
were still in use by the late sixth century, and in Syria, at least, a 
new style of bath-house was developed. The most important changes 
were the greatly reduced scale of the new ones and the suppression 
of the frigidarium which had been the largest chamber in most classical 
baths and the centre of social activity. Instead the new baths tended 
to have a number of small chambers of roughly similar size, the hot 
chamber gradually becoming more important at the expense of the 
intermediate ones in later centuries. Sometimes these baths were 
complemented by an enlarged version of the classical apodyterium, or 
changing room, which in some early Islamic princely baths became 
a large and sumptuous reception hall. The late antique type can be 
observed in the few baths found in the small towns of the limestone 
massif of northern Syria. The best example is that of Serjilla, given 
to the community by a local notable and dated by inscription to 473. 21 
The proportions of the rooms and their reduced dimensions are in 
striking contrast to earlier buildings. 

Clear evidence for the changing nature of urban baths comes from 
Gerasa (Jerash). In the Roman period the city had boasted two 
massive bath-houses, one on each side of the river. There is no 
indication when these vast structures ceased to be used but in the 
mid-fifth century a new set of baths was built in the centre of the 
urban nucleus, near the cathedral, by Bishop Placcus (built 454-5, 
restored in 584). 22 These were clearly public baths, since they open 
onto the street and there would have been no purpose in building 

20 Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity, pp. 54, 60, 70; Lassus, Portiques d'Antioche, p. 

21 G. Tchalenko, Villages antiques de la Syrie du nord, 3 vols. (Paris, 1953-8), i, pp. 
25-8; H. C. Butler, Publications of the Princeton University Archaeological Expeditions 
to Syria in 1904-5 and 1909, 9 vols. (Leiden, 1907-49), division II, section B, pt. 3, 
pp. 118-23. For general comments on the changing architecture of baths in late 
antiquity, Grotzfeld, Bad im arabisch-islamischen Mittelalter, pp. 28-9. 

22 Kraeling, Gerasa, pp. 265-9. 


them had the earlier baths still been functioning. The reduced scale 
of the baths of Placcus is striking, the entire complex could have been 
accommodated in the frigidarium of the old west baths, but with its 
small chambers and intimate proportions it looks forward to the bath 
houses of the Islamic city. The examples at Serjilla and Gerasa give 
support to the argument that the architectual origins of the Muslim 
bath should be sought in the baths of the Syrian towns of late 
antiquity. 23 

These changes in architecture also point to changes in use. In the 
late antique and Islamic periods it would seem that citizens visited 
the baths to get clean, rather than to conduct the business of the day 
and improve their minds and bodies. 

We have very little archaeological evidence about early Islamic 
urban bath-houses, although we know from abundant literary evi- 
dence that they existed. The series of medieval baths from Damascus 
and Cairo, which have been fully studied, go back no earlier than 
the twelfth century. 24 The most famous surviving Umayyad baths, 
at Qusayr Amra and Khirbat Mafjar, belong to princely residences 
rather than to urban communities and are as much reception halls as 
baths (a pattern which seems to go back to antiquity; for example, 
the baths and audience hall of the late antique palace of the proconsul 
of Asia at Ephesus). 25 The only surviving urban bath-houses seem 
to be those at the agricultural and commercial settlement of Qasr al- 
Hayr al-Sharqi in the Syrian desert. 26 Here there is one small bath 
within the walls which conforms to the pattern of Serjilla and the 
baths of Placcus. There is also a larger complex outside the fortifica- 
tions which resembles the princely type and has a large changing 
room preceding the warm and hot rooms. In one respect, however, 
the early Islamic bath had more in common with the classical one 
than with the later Islamic. Late antique and Umayyad bath builders 
continued to use the hypocaust, though on a reduced scale, for 

23 For this argument, see O. Grabar, City in the Desert (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 
pp. 94-7. For an interesting transformation of a Roman bath to the early Islamic style, 
Y. Hirschfeld and G. Solar, "The Roman Thermae at Hammat Gadar", Israel 
Exploration JL, xxxi (1981), pp. 179-219. 

24 M. Ecochard, Les bains de Damas (Beirut, 1943); E. Pauty, Les hammams du 
Caire (Cairo, 1933). 

25 M. Almagro et ai, Qusayr Amra (Madrid, 1975); R. W. Hamilton, Khirbet al- 
Mafjar (Oxford, 1959). For the palace at Ephesus, Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity, pp. 

26 Grabar, City in the Desert, pp. 54-6, 90-7. 


heating the hot chamber, whereas later Muslim baths used a simpler 
system of underfloor pipes from the furnace room. 27 

The most complex and far reaching of the changes in urban design 
in late antiquity and the early Islamic period was the changing 
street layout. From Hellenistic times the cities of Syria had been 
distinguished by wide, straight streets crossing at right angles and by 
open public squares and markets, usually, but not always, rectangular 
in shape. Between the laying out of the Hellenistic street plan and 
the end of the Byzantine empire the typical main street had seen 
some changes. Originally some important individual buildings had 
porticoes looking onto the thoroughfare, but beginning with Herod 
the Great's development in Antioch in about 6 B.C. these were often 
incorporated in continous colonnades along the whole length of the 
main street, and the important side ones as well. Libanius, writing 
in fourth-century Antioch, considered that the colonnaded street was 
one of the most important amenities the city had to offer. 28 Such 
colonnades survive in Gerasa, Palmyra and (reconstructed) Apamea 
to give us a clear picture of these structures. Such streets continued 
to be used in late antiquity, and excavations at both Sardis and 
Ephesus show that they were still being constructed in Asia Minor 
in the fourth and fifth centuries. The colonnaded streets of Jerusalem, 
which figure so prominently on the Madaba mosaic map, are thought 
to date from the Byzantine period, and we have already seen that 
Justinian took pains to rebuild the great street at Antioch in the 540s. 
Planners seem to have worked to a consistent scale for street widths 
in multiples of 18 podes (5 5 metres) with widths of up to 22 metres 
for the widest streets at Gerasa and Palmyra. 29 The colonnaded street 
was elegant but functional, it allowed the separation of wheeled traffic 
and pedestrians, the provision of covered sidewalks which enabled 
public life to be continued regardless of bad weather and position for 
spacious shops and houses. The comments of Libanius suggest that 
the columns might not always have been as unencumbered as the 
ruins and modern reconstruction suggest, but the overall impression 
was clearly one of spaciousness and order. Similarly the agoras were 

27 Grotzfeld, Bad im arabisch-islamischen Mittelalter, pp. 56-9, discusses the later 
history of the hypocaust. 

28 Libanius, Antiochikos, trans. A. J. Festugiere, in Antioche paienne et chretienne 
(Paris, 1959), pp. 26-7. 

29 M. Broshi, ''Standards of Street Widths in the Roman-Byzantine Period", 
Israel Exploration J 7. , xxvii (1977), pp. 232-6. For another early sixth-century street 
development, Wiemken and Holum, "Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima", p. 31. 


surrounded by colonnades and showed the same regular appearance 
as the street. 

The situation in the traditional Islamic city was very different. 
The spacious open street was frequently built over while the much 
narrower road (path might be a better description) often occupied 
the classical sidewalk, the road itself being built over and covered 
with shops or houses. In some cities like Aleppo and Jerusalem 
several narrow suqs were built parallel on the site of the single 
colonnaded street. The nature of this change was brilliantly illumi- 
nated fifty years ago by Sauvaget in a model which shows how the 
classical pattern was slowly altered and its character changed. 30 The 
evidence suggests that the process was one of continued development, 
rather than desertion and resettlement and that the area of the modern 
suqs of Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem and, probably, Hims have been 
market areas without interruption since classical times. Sauvaget 
suggested that the change occurred during a period of anarchy and 
weak government during the tenth century but it is now clear that 
the process began very much earlier. In Gerasa, for example, we find 
streets being built over and in some cases blocked during the late 
Byzantine period, and in Apamea the classical street plan was disrup- 
ted at the same time. 31 The most recent commentator on the urban 
history of Damascus suggests that the process had begun there well 
before the Islamic conquest. Although the excavators assigned the 
building-over of the great street at Antioch to the early Islamic period, 
there is no firm evidence for this and the structures, built directly 
onto the pavement of Justinian's thoroughfare, may well date from 
the last years of Byzantine rule. 32 Evidence has recently emerged in 
Palmyra showing the use of the colonnaded street as a site for a 
narrow suq in Umayyad times, very much as Sauvaget suggested. 33 
In many residential areas through roads were converted into narrow, 
private culs-de-sac, simply giving access to the houses on each side. 
When Muqaddasi visited Damascus in the later tenth century all the 

30 First published in Sauvaget, "Plan de Laodicee-sur-Mer", and more recently in 
Hourani and Stern (eds.), Islamic City, p. 171. On the subject of markets, ancient and 
modern, E. Wirth, "Zum Problem des Bazaars", Der Islam, li (1974), pp. 203-60, 
and lii (1975), pp. 6-46. 

31 Kraeling, Gerasa, pp. 115, 227, 294; J. and J-C. Baity, Actes du Colloque Apamee 
en Syrie (Brussels, 1969), pp. 17, 41-3, 77, 114. For other examples, see Claude, 
Byzantinische Stadt im 6. Jahrhundert, pp. 44-5, 57-8. 

32 Lassus, Portiques d'Antioche, pp. 149-50. 

33 Unpublished excavations by the Syrian Department of Antiquities. I am indebted 
to Dr. M. Gawlikowski for this information. 


markets were roofed over except one, the "Street Called Straight", 
and the same was true of Aleppo and Jerusalem by the twelfth century 
if not before. Early Muslim legists discussing the required width for 
a public street suggested a mere seven cubits (slightly over three 
metres). 34 

The design of commercial areas changed in another important 
respect. The suqs of the Islamic town were basically linear, essentially 
narrow streets bordered by small shops, and the open spaces of forum 
or agora ceased to function as a commercial centre. In Aleppo the 
agora was incorporated into the court of the great mosque in Umayyad 
times (early eighth century), while in Damascus it seems to have been 
built over and formed a residential district. 35 Smaller rectangular 
market areas did still exist, in the form of the covered qaysariyya, 
which Sauvaget saw as a direct descendant of the classical basilica, 
and the open courtyard of the khan (inn), but neither of these played 
the central role in urban life that the agora had done and neither was 
developed before the twelfth century. Where large open markets did 
exist, they were to be found outside the gates and catered for livestock 
and food brought from the surrounding country by peasants or 
bedouin. The high-status trades, fine textiles, jewelry, books, spices 
and the like were to be found in the suqs around the mosque, not in 
the open markets. There is some evidence of the infilling of urban 
open spaces in late antiquity (at Gerasa and Ephesus, for example) 
and that the change from open to linear markets was already underway 
in the fifth century; 36 as in other areas, it seems that the early Islamic 
period saw the continuation and full development of trends which 
had already existed before. 

While the urban pattern of antiquity was disturbed in the sites we 
have been looking at so far, it is instructive to examine the townscape 
of newly emergent urban communities of the fifth and sixth centuries 
in Syria, cities where there was no classical town plan to affect 
later growth. In the area of the limestone massif of northern Syria, 
described by Tchalenko, there were at least two communities which 
could reasonably be described as urban in character. The first of 

34 G. Le Strange, Palestine under the Moslems (London, 1890; repr. Beirut, 1965), 
pp. 225, 364; R. Brunschvig, "Urbanisme medieval et droit musulman", Revue des 
etudes islamiques, xvi (1947), p. 132. For the architectural development of the market 
of Fustat in this period, Goitein, Mediterranean Society, iv, pp. 26-31. 

35 Sauvaget, Alep, p. 76; Sauvaget, "Plan antique de Damas", pp. 339-47. 

36 Kraeling, Gerasa, pp. 115, 157-8; Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity, p. 82; Foss, 
Byzantine and Turkish Sardis, pp. 42-3. 


these was Kaprobarada (Brad), 37 north of Qal c at Sim c an. This was 
an ancient community which expanded considerably during the fifth 
and sixth centuries. By the second half of the sixth, the settlement 
had a decidedly urban aspect and seems to have been an administrative 
centre for the surrounding countryside. The late antique city boasted 
a number of churches, including one which Butler described as the 
"cathedral" on account of its size and congregational nature, 38 and 
an official residence for the local administrator. There was also a 
building which may have been an andron, or community meeting- 
place. Kaprobarada was clearly an artisanal and agricultural centre 
of some importance, probably performing the same economic 
functions as many classical cities, yet there is a total absence of formal 
town planning or public urban buildings other than churches. The 
"streets" were narrow winding paths, there was no agora, no colon- 
nades, no theatre and the one bath was a small structure dating 
from an earlier period of development and quite inadequate for a 
community of that size. Another example can be found further south 
at Kapropera (Al-Bara). 39 This town seems to have developed from 
the end of the fourth century onwards. Again, the urban nature of 
the community is apparent and in the late sixth century it occupied 
an area of about 2x3 kilometres (although not all of this was built 
up). The size and elegance of the churches testify to its prosperity, 
yet once again there is no sign of classical planning and, apart from 
ecclesiastical structures, no public buildings. A pattern of narrow, 
winding, uneven streets formed the means of communication. 

The examples of Kaprobarada and Kapropera can be paralleled 
elsewhere in the provinces of Syria and Arabia, in the recently 
investigated settlement at Umm al-Jimal, 40 for example. Nowhere 
from the entire area is there evidence of town planning on the 
classical model during the fifth and sixth centuries. Perhaps we should 
remember Butler's description of another expanding settlement of 
the period, Tarutia (Kerratin) in central Syria: "Tarutia was very 
much of a city. The houses, though large, were crowded together, 
the streets were narrow and the open squares few and small. The 
street entrances to the houses were pretentious . . . but the outer 

37 Tchalenko, Villages antiques de la Syrie du nord, ii, plate 43; Butler, Publications 
of the Princeton University Archaeological Expeditions to Syria, II, B, 6, pp. 229-315. 

38 Ibid., II, B, 6, pp. 305-6. 

39 Tchalenko, Villages antiques de la Syrie du nord, ii, plates 137-9. 

40 B. de Vries, "The Umm al-Jimal Project, 1972-7" Bull. Amer. Schools of Oriental 
Research, ccxliv (1981), pp. 53-72. 


walls must have presented a grim appearance even though they were 
plastered over and may have been coloured, for the outer windows 
were few and narrow". 41 Such then was the aspect of the late antique 

The coming of Islam made one important contribution to the built 
environment of the town. A new sort of public building appeared, 
the mosque. In its most obvious aspect the mosque replaced the 
church as the place of worship for the political and social elite of the 
city: in Damascus in the early eighth century the church was taken 
over and demolished, in Aleppo cathedral and mosque coexisted on 
opposite sides of a narrow street until the twelfth century, while in 
Emesa (Hims) mosque and church were simply two halves of the 
same building throughout the early middle ages. But the mosque also 
replaced the agora as the main outdoor meeting-place in the city. In 
Damascus, the great court of the Umayyad mosque forms the only 
open space of any size within the walls of the old city while in Aleppo 
the mosque was actually built on the old agora, its wide court 
occupying the area of the classical open space. The mosque also 
replaced the agora and the theatre in a functional sense. Plays and 
mimes formed no part of the life of the madina, but the theatre had 
also had a political function as the scene of public meetings and 
formal political ceremonies, 42 and it was these functions which were 
inherited by the mosque. It was here that the oath of allegiance, the 
bay c a, was taken to new rulers and the khutba, the weekly sermon in 
which the ruler's name was acknowledged, took place. It was here, 
too, that governors and caliphs could address the Muslims on matters 
of public importance. When Ziyad b. Abihi was appointed governor 
of Basra in 665 he assembled the people of the town in the mosque and 
warned them in no uncertain terms to behave themselves. Similarly in 
the confusion which followed the death of the young caliph Mu c awiya 
II in 684 the various contenders for power met in the mosque 
in Damascus. Later in the Umayyad period Yazid III, who had 
assassinated his predecessor Walid II in 744, addressed the people in 
the mosque at Damascus, laying before them his plans for reform 
and soliciting their support. 43 The public and political functions 

41 Butler, Publications of the Princeton University Archaeological Expeditions to Syria, 
II, B, 22, p. 72. 

42 Liebeschuetz, Antioch, pp. 208-16. 

43 Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, Ta'rikh al-Rusul wa'l-Muluk, ed. M. de Goeje et 
ai, 3 vols. (Leiden, 1879-1901), ii, pp. 73-6, 468-72, 1834-6. For the many functions 
of the mosque in the early Islamic city, Goitein, Mediterranean Society, iv, pp. 31-3. 


which would have taken place in theatre, agora or hippodrome in 
Byzantine times now happened in the mosque. There is an interesting 
contrast here with medieval Italy where urban continuity was also 
strong. The cathedral of an Italian town did not provide a public 
open space in the way the courtyard of a Syrian mosque did. When 
the citizens of early medieval Pavia wished to gather to make their 
views heard, they did so in the square (plated) by the cathedral. 44 
This may have been one of the reasons why open squares survived 
in the cities of Italy and not in those of Syria. 

The mosque also took over the functions of other public buildings. 
It was usually in the mosque that the Muslim judge (qadi) held court, 
although there are records of early qadis using their own houses for 
this purpose. Until the appearance of the madrasa (theological college) 
in the eleventh century, the mosque also served as the centre for 
education in the religious and legal sciences, once again taking over 
the function of other forms of public architecture. The transformation 
of the monumental city of antiquity cannot be understood without 
appreciating the many different activities which took place in the 

Early Muslim society did not deliberately choose to develop towns 
with narrow winding streets out of any conscious aesthetic or cultural 
preference, and the idea that there is something in the spirit of Islam 
which leads to the enclosed, private and secret world of the "Islamic 
city" should not be entertained by serious urban historians. The most 
important evidence for this comes from early Islamic planned towns. 
When Muslim rulers laid out new cities, they adopted orthogonal 
plans, dividing blocks of housing by straight and sometimes wide 
streets. The clearest example of this comes from the early eighth- 
century settlement at Anjar, in the Biqa c valley just south of Heliopolis 
(Baalbak). Here the early Islamic city has four wide streets which 
meet at a central tetrapylon and the entire plan is ordered and regular. 
The same features are apparent in the contemporary settlement at 
Qasr al-Hayr East in the Syrian desert, where the small, planned 
madina has at its centre an open rectangular square surrounded by 
arcades. On a larger scale, the vast development of the ninth-century 
c Abbasid capital at Samarra in Iraq shows a similar concern for order. 
Aerial photographs show clearly the very wide main street (much 
wider in fact than the main street, cardo maximus, of any Roman town 

44 D. A. Bullough, "Urban Change in Early Mediaeval Italy", Papers of the British 
School at Rome, xxxiv (1966), pp. 82-130. 


in Syria) and the narrower streets which lead off it at right angles and 
divide the city into rectangular blocks for houses and gardens. 45 
These examples suggest that where cities were planned, early Islamic 
surveyors (the muhandisun) had very similar ideas to those of their 
classical predecessors and these early Islamic settlements show much 
more concern for orderly urban development than the small towns 
of Byzantine Syria like Kaprobarada and Kapropera described above. 
Planned and unplanned cities always existed in Syria. The contrast 
is that in classical antiquity most cities including the largest and 
wealthiest were planned and ordered, in Islamic society they were 

The picture which emerges from this study suggests that urban 
change in the Middle East took place over a number of centuries and 
that the development from the polls of antiquity to the Islamic madina 
was a long drawn out process of evolution. Many of the features 
which are often associated with the coming of Islam, the decay of the 
monumental buildings and the changes in the classical street plan, 
are in evidence long before the Muslim conquests. In other ways the 
evolution of the traditional Islamic town was not completed until 
much later; regular street plans were still laid out, if only occasionally 
(and it should be noted, we have no idea of the street plan of the 
greatest early Islamic new towns at Kufa and Basra in Iraq). The 
khans, caravansarais, qaysariyyas and madrasas of the traditional city 
seem to be developments of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. We 
should perhaps think in terms of a half millennium of transition. 

Before considering the causes of these changes it is perhaps import- 
ant to make two general points. The first is that we should avoid 
making inappropriate value judgements. The development of the 
Islamic city is often seen as a process of decay, the abandonment of 
the high Hippodamian ideals of classical antiquity and the descent 
into urban squalor. On the contrary, the changes in city planning 
may, in some cases, have been the result of increased urban and 
commercial vitality, as in early Islamic Damascus and Aleppo for 
example. It was rather that the built environment was adapted for 
different purposes, life-styles and legal customs. The changing aspect 
of the city was determined by long-term social, economic and cultural 
forces, not by administrative incompetence or aesthetic insensitivity. 

45 On Anjar, J. Sourdel-Thomime and B. Spuler, Die Kunst des Islam (Propylaen 
Kunstgeschichte, iv, Berlin, 1973), pp. 163-6. On Qasr al-Hayr, O. Grabar, City in 
the Desert. On Samarra, Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, ii; J. M. Rogers, 
"Samarra: A Study in Medieval Town Planning", in Hourani and Stern (eds.), Islamic 
City, pp. 119-55. 


The second consideration is that public, open spaces, be they 
narrow suqs or wide colonnaded streets, will always be under pressure. 
They will only survive if they fulfil a perceived and generally acknowl- 
edged purpose and are protected by an active and vigilant civic 
authority. If the usefulness of such spaces is not accepted, then 
inevitably they will be encroached on and built over. As far as the 
planning of public open spaces is concerned, the historian must 
seek the reasons why the constraints which had prevented such 
encroachment in classical times were no longer operative in late 
antique and early Islamic cities. 

What then were the factors which led to these urban changes? The 
first cause to be considered is demographic decline, caused by plague, 
invasion or both. Evidence suggests serious and sustained falls in 
population throughout the eastern Mediterranean in the aftermath of 
the bubonic plague of 540 and its successors. Manyptffefs never sur- 
vived to become early Islamic mada'in, and the period of transition 
marks the end of their urban history: Chalcis (Qinnasrin) and Gerasa 
(Jerash) were virtually uninhabited by the tenth century. There is a 
second category, like Apamea, where the polis becomes an early 
Islamic village, its urban aspect and plan largely lost. There were 
also cities which were destroyed by earthquake, a factor which seems 
to have been especially important in the case of Beirut where the 
classical street plan and buildings were entirely obliterated by the 
tremor of 550 and the Islamic town developed on quite a different 
pattern. 46 But for other cities in the area there is no evidence of 
serious demographic problems; Damascus, Hims and Aleppo prob- 
ably increased their populations between 500 and 750. Yet the chang- 
ing nature of the built environment was as evident in towns which 
survived as in those which did not, and demographic decline alone 
cannot account for all the changes. 

The differing role of government is important. In the early imperial 
period the patronage for public building came mostly from rich 
local citizens who provided funds for the construction of massive 
monumental complexes. With the decline of civic self-government in 
late antiquity this patronage passed to the emperor and his local 

46 On plague and plague mortality in this period, see the important work of L. 
Conrad, "Plague in the Early Medieval Near East" (Princeton Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 
1981). Earthquake damage is described in John Malalas, Chronographia, ed. J. -P. 
Migne (Patrologia Graeca, xcvii, Paris, 1865), p. 704. The damage caused by the 
earthquake is attested by the Piacenza Pilgrim: Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before 
the Crusades, p. 79. For the plan of pre-modern Beirut, Comte du Mesnil du Buisson, 
"Les anciens defenses de Beyrouth", Syria, ii (1921), pp. 238-57, 317-27. 


representatives, a process which reached its logical conclusion in the 
first half of the sixth century when the remaining functions of city 
councils were abolished and their treasuries confiscated. 47 After the 
mid-sixth century, however, even central government patronage, as 
recorded in inscriptions, virtually dried up except in areas like the 
Euphrates valley which lay on the direct route of Persian invasions. 
By the sixth century, too, such imperial patronage as there was had 
shifted towards religious buildings rather than secular monuments, 
sometimes in rural rather than urban settings; in Ephesus, for exam- 
ple, the only major work of the sixth century was the construction 
by Justinian of the church of St. John outside the city. In some cases 
the bishop seems to have taken over from the council or the imperial 
government, and provided amenities for the city. In Gerasa the bishop 
funded the building of baths, and it is interesting to note that the 
church also provided bathing facilities in eighth-century Rome. John 
of Ephesus describes how the patriarch of Antioch secured funding 
from the emperor Maurice (582-602) for the building of both a 
hippodrome and a theatre (described as a "church of Satan") at 
Antioch, but the story may be no more than an attempt by the 
staunchly monophysite John to discredit the Chalcedonian patri- 
arch. 48 There is little evidence that episcopal patronage of civic 
building compensated for the drying up of other sources of revenue. 
Apart from the rebuilding of Antioch, previously discussed, there is 
virtually no evidence of imperial patronage of secular building in 
sixth-century Syria. The government took over the finance of building 
and maintenance of public monuments from the cities and their 
councils and was then unwilling or unable to sustain its commitments. 
The confiscation of town revenues also put an end to many of the 
activities which had taken place in the monumental buildings. In 
classical antiquity, both the public baths and the theatrical perform- 
ances had been financed by subsidies from the town revenues, rather 
than being run on an economic basis. Whether such subsidies contin- 
ued into the fifth century is not clear. Baths were certainly built under 

47 For the patronage of building in late antiquity, Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity, pp. 
21-9; Liebeschuetz, Antioch, pp. 132-6. For the decline of city councils, A. H. M. 
Jones, "Cities of the Roman Empire: Political, Administrative and Judicial Institu- 
tions", Recueils du Societe Jean Bodin, vi (1954), pp. 135-73; Liebeschuetz, Antioch, 
pp. 167-86. 

48 Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity, p. 25; R. Krautheimer, Rome: Profile of a City 
(Princeton, 1980), p. Ill; Iohannis Ephesini, Historiae ecclesiasticae pars tertia, trans. 
E. W. Brooks (Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium, cvi, Louvain, 1964), 
pp. 202-3. 


private patronage at this time and the examples at Serjilla and Gerasa 
have already been cited, but it is not clear whether these were 
endowed with funds for their operation or whether they demanded 
payment from those who used them; the small scale of the latter 
construction and the fact that it had only one entrance may suggest 
the latter. 49 There is no tradition of subsidized bathing in the Islamic 
period; customers paid, as they still do today, for the services pro- 
vided, and it is possible that this reflects late antique practice and 
accounts in some measure for the development of the new style of 
bath architecture during this period. 

The pattern of government patronage in the early Islamic period 
was very different from the classical model. In many ways the early 
Islamic state was a minimalist state which saw no reason to interfere 
in the activities of its subjects except when disturbances might result. 
It provided physical security for the Muslims in the shape of city 
walls, mosques for them to worship in and, usually, a supply of 
running water. Muslim authorities considered the supply of water by 
canals or aqueducts as an essential service, partly for ritual reasons 
since ablution was essential before worship. The pattern visible in 
Italy, where the aqueducts of the classical period are frequently 
replaced by wells in the early middle ages, is not usually found in 
the Islamic world. The Umayyads certainly spent money on building, 
too much their critics alleged, but their projects, apart from the great 
mosques, were palaces in both town and country, and agricultural 
developments with their related settlements, of which Qasr al-Hayr 
East is an excellent example. They did not spend money on beautify- 
ing the streets of Damascus or on putting on public entertainments. 
It seems probable too that the government in Umayyad times was 
comparatively poor. In most areas of the Caliphate the taxes collected 
were distributed to the Muslims in the provinces concerned; that is, 
most of the revenues collected in Iraq were spent in Iraq and only a 
very small surplus, if any, was forwarded to the government. 50 In 
modern economic terms, the government controlled a much smaller 
proportion of the gross imperial product than under the Roman 

49 For evidence of payment for baths in late antiquity, Lumpe, "Zur Kultur- 
geschichte des Bades in der byzantinischen Ara", pp. 156-7. 

50 The problem of finance of government in the early Islamic state has received very 
little attention; for the Umayyad period there are some very interesting points in 
D. C. Dennett, "Marwan II and the Passing of the Umayyad Caliphate" (Harvard 
Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1939). Under the c Abbasids after 750, revenue collecting became 
more centralized and the government did embark on large-scale urban developments 
like those at Baghdad and Samarra. 


empire. Consequently both the need and the resources for govern- 
ment patronage of urban building were greatly reduced, and govern- 
ment patronage of monumental secular building, which had become 
increasingly erratic during the last century of Byzantine rule, ceased 
altogether in the early Islamic period. 

The changing legal system may have been a factor in urban develop- 
ment. Roman law made a sharp distinction between state and private 
property and it was the function of government to prevent private 
building on the public domain. It did not matter whether such 
trespassing caused problems or not, it was still illegal and the local 
governor was enjoined to stop it. Clearly there were many cities where 
such laws were not fully enforced in the sixth century but the legal 
provision did exist and could be called on if necessary. Roman law 
also concerned itself with the aesthetic aspects of the townscape, 
forbidding structures which degraded its appearance. 51 Here again 
such laws could only be effective if the resources and will to enforce 
them existed but they did show that the appearance of the city was a 
feature with which rulers should concern themselves. 

Islamic law on property starts from a quite different basis. 52 For 
Muslim jurists the important unit was the family and its house. 
Broadly speaking, it was held that they should be allowed to do 
anything they chose as long as it did not harm their neighbours. 
Furthermore, the house was held to have some rights over the 
adjoining public space. This legal framework could have important 
repercussions for urban planning. At its most simple it meant that a 
man could extend his house into the street or build an overhanging 
balcony without needing to seek permission from anyone. If his 
neighbours felt that the new construction was harming them, by 
preventing access to their own property for example, it was up to 
them to take the case to the qadi who could, if he felt that it was 
necessary, order that the new structure should be demolished. But 
the enforcement was the result of private prosecution by those who 
were harmed rather than by the state authorities. Equally the muhtasib 
(market inspector) would only take action against obstructions if they 
caused a nuisance. When in 918 Rotgerius of Pa via, an Italian city 
where the old Roman concept of public streets was still very much 
alive, wished to build a balcony from his house over the street, 
he was obliged to get a licence, presumably at some expense and 

51 Claude, Byzantinische Stadt im 6. Jahrhundert, pp. 54-5. 

52 Brunschvig, "Urbanisme medieval et droit musulman". 


inconvenience, from the king; 53 if he had lived in a Muslim city, no 
such permission would have been necessary and he and people like 
him would have been much more tempted to enlarge their properties 
at the expense of the public street. The jurists also held that if a man 
owned property on both sides of a street, he could lawfully cover it 
over with an arch and build rooms on it, thus converting the street 
into a tunnel. In the case of a small cul-de-sac, the owners of the 
properties could, if they all agreed, place a gate across the entrance, 
thus converting a previously public road into a semi-private court, a 
feature typical of the medieval Islamic townscape. When it came to 
individual constructions, the law was equally easygoing. Aesthetic 
considerations played no part whatever; the fact that a building was 
an unsightly ruin did not mean that the owner could be compelled 
to tidy it up and only if it was actually dangerous could those 
threatened take action. While the law took no account of appearance, 
it was deeply concerned with privacy. If one man built his house so 
that it overlooked another's then the offended neighbour could go to 
law, since he had been harmed. 

These legal changes obviously affected urban development, but 
too much importance should not be attached to them. Archaeological 
evidence shows clearly that the strict injunctions against trespassing 
on the public domain were unable to save the classical city layout 
when other social and economic factors proved too strong. Similarly, 
Muslim law did allow remedies for gross interference in urban 
functions. If someone blocked up a major traffic artery, for example, 
the quadi would decide against him and the structure concerned 
would have to be removed. If the Muslim community had perceived 
that wide colonnaded streets and spacious agoras were vital to their 
well-being, then they could have proceeded to law to protect them. 
It is clear, however, that they did not consider this to be the case, 
and while Muslim legists agreed that important streets must remain 
open, they only needed to be wide enough to allow two loaded pack 
animals to pass each other. 

Another contributory element in the transformation of the urban 
pattern was the changing social structure of the cities. 54 In general, 
classical cities do not seem to have been the centre of great industrial 
or commercial activity. Obviously there were exceptions; we have 

53 Bullough, "Urban Change in Early Medieval Italy", p. 108. 

54 For the economic and social structure of the cities, Jones, "Cities of the Roman 
Empire"; A. H. M. Jones, "The Economic Life of the Towns of the Roman Empire", 
Recueils du Societe Jean Bodin, vii (1955), pp. 161-92. 


ample evidence of the trade of Tyre and Palmyra in the classical 
period and there was certainly some commercial activity in Tyre and 
Caesarea in Palestine up to the late sixth and early seventh centuries. 55 
In the main, however, commerce and manufacture do not seem to 
have been the most important factor in the prosperity of towns. This 
impression is strengthened by the Arab historian Baladhuri's account 
of the early Islamic conquest of the area. Only in the case of Caesarea 
does he mention any markets, although he does quote a treaty 
which makes provision for the merchants of Heliopolis (Baalbak). 56 
Elsewhere the impression is given of an overwhelmingly rural econ- 
omy. The classical city seems to have depended for its existence on 
the fact that neighbouring landowners lived in it to take part in social 
and political activities; in the words of A. H. M. Jones, "The city 
was a social phenomenon, the result of the predeliction of the wealth- 
ier classes for the amenities of urban life". 57 This seems to have 
remained true in the Byzantine period, when the city also became 
the centre of the ecclesiastical administration as well, and as late as 
570 the Piacenza pilgrim comments that Apamea was the place of 
residence for all the nobility of the area. 58 This city elite was also 
dependent on the government in the sense that much of their wealth 
derived from their role as tax-collectors and administrators in the 
surrounding rural areas, 59 and when the tax ceased to be collected 
the cities suffered greatly. Although we know that some Byzantine 
financial administrators retained their positions up to and beyond the 
Islamic conquest, 60 the wars of the Persian occupation must have 
meant a serious interruption of the tax-collecting machinery and 
consequently in wealth and importance of the urban aristocracy. In 
addition, many of the Greek-speaking upper classes fled Syria at the 

55 For Tyre, Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, p. 79; for Caesarea, 
Ahmad b.Jabir al-Baladhuri, Futuh al-Buldan, ed. S. Munajjid (Cairo, 1957), pp. 166- 
7, trans. P. K. Hitti, The Origins of the Islamic State (New York, 1916), p. 217. 

56 The Baalbak treaty is given in al-Baladhuri, Futuh al-Buldan, p. 154 (trans. Hitti, 
pp. 198-9). 

57 Jones, "Cities of the Roman Empire", p. 170. 

58 Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, p. 89. 

59 For the role of government and taxation in sustaining the late antique social 
order, see C. J. Wickham, "The Other Transition: From the Ancient World to 
Feudalism", Past and Present, no. 103 (May 1984), pp. 3-36. Townspeople also acted 
as moneylenders to the villagers, and in some areas of the eastern empire there seems 
to have been a real problem of peasant indebtedness. See John of Ephesus, "Life of 
Habib", in Lives of the Eastern Saints, ed. and trans. E. W. Brooks (Patrologia 
orientalis, xvii, Paris, 1923), pp. 5-18. 

60 The family of St. John of Damascus, for example. 


time of the Arab conquests and it may well be that the old style 
political elite had almost vanished by the late seventh century. 

Neither bureaucrats nor landowners, who were often the same 
people, paid much attention to the needs of commerce, and merchants 
had a low social status. It was not that there were no merchants in 
the towns, but rather that they did not form the dominant, decision- 
making elite. This cultural prejudice was reinforced by Christian 
suspicions of money-making activities. Nor did the government pat- 
ronize urban markets to any great extent; indeed it operated outside 
the monetary economy, obtaining the goods and services it needed 
by payments in kind and requisition. 

This is not to say that commerce was stagnant in the late sixth and 
early seventh centuries. Archaeological evidence make it clear that 
trade in north African pottery remained common in the eastern 
Mediterranean right into the seventh century. 61 But this trade was 
not necessarily based in towns. In the fourth century Libanius ex- 
plained how the villagers in the hinterland of Antioch exchanged 
goods at local fairs rather than coming to the great city to do business. 
This impression of rural self-sufficiency is confirmed by the life of 
St. Simeon Stylites the Younger whose monastery, although only a 
few miles from Antioch, seems to have been economically self- 
contained rather than relying on the city and its services. In the sixth 
century there is evidence of the growing importance of Christian 
shrines in the life of the community and it is possible that the 
pilgrimage centre and its attendant fair was a more important focus 
for commercial activity than the urban market. Great shrines like 
those of St. Thecla at Seleucia in Cilicia, St. Sergius at Resafa and 
St. Leontios at Tripoli clearly attracted vast numbers of devotees and 
must have become natural centres of exchange. 62 Archaeological 
evidence reveals the existence of numerous shops and what can 
usefully be described as a suq at Dayr Sim c an, just below the great 
shrine of St. Simeon Stylites the Elder. Building of monasteries and 
hostels at Dayr Sim c an continued right through the sixth century, 
testifying to the continued popularity and prosperity of the pilgrim- 

61 H. Blake, "Medieval Pottery: Technical Innovation or Economic Change?", 
in H. Blake et al. (eds.), Papers in Italian Archaeology (Brit. Archaeol. Repts., 
Supplementary Ser., xli pt. 2, Oxford, 1978), pp. 435-72. 

62 For pilgrimage centres, Claude, Byzantinische Stadt im 6. Jahrhundert. For the 
shrine of St. Thecla, G. Dagron, Vie et miracles de ste Thecle (Subsidia hagiographia, 
lxii, Brussels, 1978), miracles 26, 29, 41. For Leontios of Tripoli, J. M. Fiey, "Le 
martyrion de st Leonce a Tripoli", Le museon, xcv (1982), pp. 77-98. 


age. 63 The most successful market in the Middle East at this time 
was the pilgrimage centre at Mecca in western Arabia where, in the 
late sixth century, the ancient haram (holy place) had become the 
centre of a flourishing trade which attracted merchants from all over 
Arabia. Despite the Meccan origins of many of the leading figures in 
early Islamic Syria, the Muslim conquest seems to have put an end 
to any pilgrimage fairs in Syria. In other Muslim countries, Morocco 
for example, pilgrimage fairs became and remained an important part 
of the local economy. The early Arab geographers mention no such 
gatherings in Syria. Muslim rule in fact brought the focus of commer- 
cial activity firmly within the city walls. 

The Islamic city was very different. Muhammad himself was a 
merchant from a merchant city, and many famous early Muslims had 
engaged in trade, including the first caliph, Abu Bakr. Early hadiths, 
the traditions of the Prophet, emerge to the effect that honest com- 
merce was more meritorious than government service, and the pro- 
sperous trader was regarded as a pillar of society. When Muslim 
geographers describe a city, they mention the mosque and the mar- 
kets, their extent, prosperity and the different sorts of goods for sale. 
For them it is the commerce of the city rather than its monumental 
buildings which are the chief source of interest. It was from the 
merchant class too that the much respected jurists and qadis were 
drawn, not from the ranks of government servants or of the military. 64 
It was natural then that the design of the city reflected the needs of 
this class and that the Muslim city allowed the commercial considera- 
tions to outweigh the dictates of formal planning. This is most obvious 
in the case of the market areas. The main consequence of the change 
from the open colonnaded street to the crowded suq was to increase 
the number of retail shops in the city centre as the old shops were 
subdivided and new structures were erected in the old roadway. 
Urban design now responded directly to commercial pressures and 

63 Butler, Publications of the Princeton University Archaeological Expeditions to Syria, 
II, B, 6, pp. 265-80; Tchalenko, Villages antiques de la Syrie du nord, i, pp. 201-22. 

64 Islamic attitudes to merchants are investigated by S. D. Goitein, "The Rise of 
the Near Eastern Bourgeoisie", Cahiers d'histoire mondiale, iii (1956-7), pp. 583-604. 
See also H. Cohen, "The Economic Background and Secular Occupations of Muslim 
Jurisprudents and Traditionalists in the Classical Period of Islam", Jl. Econ. and 
Social Hist, of the Orient, xiii (1970), pp. 16-61. Particularly important in this context 
is the commercial background of many of the qadis or judges, since it was they who 
would take decisions about the legality or otherwise of building operations. Examples 
from Egypt are cited in Goitein, Mediterranean Society, ii, pp. 365-7, and from Iran 
in R. Bulliet, Patricians of Nishapur (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), pp. 20-7. 


no government action was taken to counter such pressures in the 
name of the inviolability of public lands or of aesthetic considerations. 

Another cause of change was a fundamental shift in the means of 
transporting goods. It has recently been argued that wheeled transport 
effectively disappeared in the Middle East between the fourth and 
eighth centuries. 65 There are no references to chariots or carts in the 
early Islamic sources, and the Arabic vocabulary for describing such 
vehicles is very rudimentary. The late seventh-century pilgrim Arculf 
commented on the absence of carts in Syria and Palestine. 66 The 
reasons for this were essentially economic; improved techniques of 
camel domestication meant that pack animals were more efficient at 
transporting goods. This had the consequence of reducing the very 
high cost of overland transport which had inhibited trade in antiquity. 
Wheeled transport, as we know from contemporary experience, has 
a profound effect on urban planning. Wide streets, kept clear of 
obstructions, were vital for the free movement of goods, and the 
wheel marks often found indented in the stone paving of classical 
streets are testimony to the volume of this traffic. As late as the fifth 
century the top end of the Embolos at Ephesus was blocked to 
prevent wheeled traffic using the commercial street from entering the 
pedestrian area of the agora. Pack animals on the other hand, require 
no such extravagant provision; a simple winding path between shops 
and houses, up and down steps if necessary, is all that is needed and, 
as mentioned above, the jurists only required that two loaded pack 
animals be able to pass in the public street. Hence the broad colon- 
naded street ceased to fulfil an essential function in the urban environ- 
ment. It might have been aesthetically desirable, but in functional 
terms it was simply redundant and pressure to keep it open was 
relaxed. The invasion of this valuable town centre space by stalls and 
shops soon followed naturally. The disappearance of wheeled traffic 
in late antiquity and the early Islamic period must have had a profound 
effect on urban planning. 

The transformation of the classical polls into the Islamic madina 
must be seen as the product of long-term social and economic changes. 
Furthermore it was a complex process, different forces being at work 
at different times. Levels of population, means of transporting goods 
and a changing social structure all played their part, and the coming 
of Islam was simply one stage in the long transformation which began 

65 For the argument and the details, R. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge, 
Mass., 1975). 

66 Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades , p. 106. 


in the sixth century or earlier and was probably not complete until 
the tenth or eleventh. To the slowly evolving city, Islam contributed 
a new type of public building and a new attitude to public law and 

It should not be imagined that the process of the decay of the 
classical street plan and monumental buildings necessarily meant that 
the city was less vital or thriving. In some cases it clearly did; the 
huts on the disused forum at Luni (Italy) indicated a serious decline 
in prosperity and population, and the same can probably be argued 
for Antioch or Gerasa in Syria. Paradoxically, however, the intrusion 
of new building into the open spaces of antiquity after the Islamic 
conquest may actually indicate increased urban commercial activity 
and pressure on land in the city centre. 

The history of the cities of Syria in late antiquity was similar to 
that in other areas of the Mediterranean. The general picture of urban 
decline in late sixth-century Italy can be paralleled by that in late 
sixth-century Syria, and the Persian invasions from 540 onwards were 
as destructive in their way as the Lombard invasions of Italy. What 
distinguishes Syria from the areas of Christian Europe, however, is 
the success of some towns, mostly inland ones, from the Islamic 
conquest onwards. City-based government and increased commercial 
activity resulting from the opening up of land-routes in the Middle 
East saw the emergence of a new type of city whose design derived 
not from the ordered urban environment of classical antiquity but 
rather from the chaotic plan of the sixth-century town out of which 
it grew. 

University of St. Andrews Hugh Kennedy